Thursday, February 03, 2005

Continuing Biology Week

Again, from Instant Biology, by Boyce Rensberger:

In the nineteenth century, it became fashionable in Asia to grind away the brown hulls of rice, leaving the grains a more appealing white. Soon after, a new disease called beriberi (Singhalese for "extreme weakness") became widespread. Symptoms varied, but the disease usually involve debilitating heart disorders.

Various researchers noticed that beriberi was common among eaters of polished rice but absent among the poorer social strata, where people made do with old-fashioned, less-desirable brown (unpolished) rice. In 1912 the Polish scientist Casimir Funk found that pigeons with beriberi could be cured by feeding them discarded rice hulls. Funk suggested beriberi and some other diseases were the result of certain nutrients missing from the diet. He dubbed them vitamins, for "vital amines."

Funk was wrong about the chemical nature (amines are substances derived from ammonia) but right about the existence of diseases caused by the absence of certain trace nutrients. The necessary factor in rice hulls was isolated in 1926 -- thiamine, now usually called B1.

So even though brown rice is icky, it's better than death.

No comments: